Unions warned over fail­ure to stem fall in mem­ber­ship

The Guardian - - FINANCIAL - Richard Part­ing­ton Unions in the pri­vate sec­tor have been told they face be­com­ing ir­rel­e­vant

Bri­tain’s trade unions have been warned that they face in­creas­ing ir­rel­e­vance with­out rad­i­cal re­forms that would at­tract new mem­bers from fast grow­ing sec­tors with large num­bers of ca­sual em­ploy­ees, such as the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try.

The mes­sage came in a re­port from the Fabian So­ci­ety, and the Com­mu­nity union, with anal­y­sis show­ing that Bri­tain’s fastest grow­ing in­dus­tries had the low­est union mem­ber­ship lev­els.

The re­port serves as a re­newed warn­ing for the union move­ment op­er­at­ing in the pri­vate sec­tor af­ter years of de­cline. It also comes as the bar­gain­ing power of work­ers to de­mand higher wages and bet­ter con­di­tions comes un­der threat from tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion as well as from the gig econ­omy. In the pri­vate sec­tor work­force, union mem­ber­ship plum­meted to 13% in 2016 – amount­ing to just 2.6 mil­lion work­ers – from al­most 50% in 1979. By con­trast, the pub­lic sec­tor ex­pe­ri­enced a drop from 69% to 53% over the same pe­riod, and 3.6 mil­lion mem­bers recorded last year.

“Trade unions have a moun­tain to climb to stem four decades of mem­ber­ship de­cline, but it is not in­sur­mount­able,” said Cameron Tait, a Fabian So­ci­ety se­nior re­search fel­low.

Union mem­ber­ship, as a pro­por­tion of the to­tal work­force in the five pri­vate sec­tor in­dus­tries with the high­est pro­jected em­ploy­ment growth, is no higher than 12.1%, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. That is sig­nif­i­cantly be­low the na­tional av­er­age for the econ­omy as a whole, where just un­der a quar­ter of all work­ers – in­clud­ing those in the pub­lic sec­tor – are mem­bers of a union.

The chal­lenge is great­est in the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor, which en­com­passes bars, restau­rants and ho­tels, and is one of the three fastest grow­ing in­dus­tries, where mem­ber­ship den­sity is just 2.5%.

The re­port, com­mis­sioned by the Chang­ing Work Cen­tre, a joint ini­tia­tive of the Fabi­ans, and Com­mu­nity, chaired by Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP and for­mer work and pen­sions sec­re­tary, in­cludes an 11-point plan for boost­ing union mem­ber­ship.

It sug­gests that more than a mil­lion ad­di­tional pri­vate-sec­tor work­ers could join the move­ment if re­forms were im­ple­mented to make it easier and more at­trac­tive for them to join.

Op­tions in­clude fol­low­ing the model used by the AA and other mo­tor in­sur­ers of­fer­ing in­stant break­down cover to non-mem­bers, whereby work­ers could be sold ser­vices in ex­change for a fee and a mem­ber­ship pledge when is­sues in the work­place arise, as op­posed to hav­ing to be a mem­ber be­fore prob­lems hap­pen. The union move­ment could also in­tro­duce a kitemark for com­pa­nies with good em­ploy­ment prac­tices.

Al­though the num­bers of work­ers recorded on a zero-hours con­tract are fall­ing, some econ­o­mists fear the high us­age of con­tracts which do not guar­an­tee min­i­mum num­bers of hours, and the fall­ing lev­els of union rep­re­sen­ta­tion, are com­bin­ing to sup­press growth in wages.

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